Pickleball, America’s fastest-growing sport, combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong and first came into Christy Howden’s, ’93, MBA’99, and Leslie White’s life in 2014. Having played together for a few years, the two decided to turn their passion into a business and opened Wolverine Pickleball in Ann Arbor in 2020.
Now, Wolverine Pickleball is expanding to a 39,000-square-foot indoor recreation facility with 12 indoor/outdoor pickleball courts, sand volleyball, bocce ball, ladder ball, cornhole, and other outdoor games. Add to that a sporting goods shop, dining lounge, rotating food trucks, gourmet vending machines, and a self-serve beer, wine, and cocktail bar, and the dynamic duo will certainly be running one of the top entertainment/athletic centers in the city.
Despite launching their business during the pandemic, Wolverine Pickleball was able to stay open thanks to a good air filtration system. Both new and experienced players flocked to the courts for exercise and companionship. Though they doubled the number of courts last summer from four to eight, more than 300 people remained on the waiting list.
“Our biggest challenge right now is keeping up with the growth,” says Howden.
Thankfully, White and Howden have U-M’s many resources in their backyard. They are partnering with the School of Kinesiology to offer group lessons to faculty and staff and provide a paid sports management internship to students. The facility is also a retreat venue for U-M athletic teams and academic departments looking for a way to bond off campus.
“It is now a club sport at U-M and lots of 20-somethings are coming here to meet people, particularly if they work remotely. We are like the new bar scene, but healthier,” says White.
Clientele regularly includes visiting University parents and alumni in town for football games. White and Howden hope their fellow alumni, both near and far, will check out their current and upcoming space and learn the sport.
The two have great plans for the new $7-million Wolverine Pickleball facility, which they hope to have open by the summer of 2023. The added space will allow them to offer even more private parties, larger corporate events and, of course, more lessons, drop-in sessions, and tournaments.
They attribute their success to the social aspect of pickleball.
“A real community exists here around the sport,” says Howden, given that, during drop-in sessions, players continuously rotate into games, meeting new pickleball partners. Recently, she said, two widows who met at Wolverine Pickleball took a vacation together in Arizona.
“Many people in our community come to us during a transition: they are suddenly empty nesters, retire, get divorced, or experience a loss. This helps them get through that time.”
Jennifer Conlin, ’83, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous national and local publications. She is also an avid pickleball player.